A guest post from Joseph Bock, author of The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention, which is hot off the press. Happy Friday!
I recently returned from Lebanon, where I was working with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) focused on violence prevention. It might seem preposterous to some people that an NGO could have a role to play in transforming conflict in a country that suffered from civil war from 1975 to 1990. But the approach being developed by the leaders of this Beirut-headquartered NGO is to try to prevent violence from breaking out at a local level, on the theory that often trivial matters spark a fire of bloodshed.
Specifically, the approach they are taking is to develop a conflict early warning and early response system. They have already put together an impressive network of volunteers who have been trained in mediation. They have not, however, developed a way to collect information systematically so as to be informed quickly enough to engage that network in effective response.
During my time in Beirut, I attended a meeting to launch an excellent report by Conciliation Resources entitled Reconciliation, reform and resilience: Positive peace for Lebanon. After the report was introduced, there was a lively discussion among NGO workers. Most of the conversation centered on the need for structural prevention—in other words, engaging with the root causes of societal tension in this country comprised of some 18 distinct ethno-political groups. After I pointed out the need for operational prevention—that is, responding to incipient violence before it happens—I was struck by the resistance in the room. There was a sense that people were already working hard on dealing with inter-religious cooperation, in building social harmony. To address operational prevention was viewed as watering down the more important structural work that needs to be done—like developing a better peace agreement that will be more sustainable and less tenuous, or focusing on a modification to school text books that do not contain historical references to conflict in Lebanon, constituting a collective amnesia that is pathological to the body politic.
As the discussion progressed, I found two additional reasons why there is resistance to operational prevention. First, since preventing incipient violence needs to have an early warning capacity so there can be an early response, and because communication through social media is seen as a promising medium for getting data on when and where violence is likely, there is a sense among NGOs that they are being thrust onto the social media bandwagon whether they want to be or not. To them, not only are donors looking for immediate results, they are also fickle, pursuing the “flavor of the month or year” as if to be switching favorite ice creams from one hot summer to the next.
The other reason for resistance is a mistaken view that using technology for operational prevention requires widespread internet access. That simply is not true. Most of the violence prevention systems that I have seen usually rely mainly on phone calls or text messages. The widespread use of mobile phones used by volunteers (a "trust network") communicating with a centralized coordinating entity is a relatively inexpensive and simple way to create an early warning system. If those in the trust network are trained in how to intervene to prevent violence, then early response is possible. Phone calls can also be made to mid- and top-level leaders who can bring their authority to bear, communicating that there will be consequences (such as jail time) for those who participate in property destruction or, worse still, harming and killing people. The internet is helpful for the centralized node. If text messages and information from phone calls are placed on a digital map, then viewing the depiction of events leading up to greater tension is helpful for those in the trust network to see, but it is not essential. In fact, the cell phones can be used to send warnings to those near the location where violence is likely to occur—what Patrick Meier calls crowdfeeding—they do not need to see clusters of events on an internet-based map. The bottom line: Conflict early warning and early response systems using so-called social media typically have cell phones as their main technology. Internet access is helpful to the extent that digital mapping is used to depict locations of events.
Sure, there are unrealistic expectations about the power of social media. It is a mistake, however, to assume that such media needs to be "high tech" (as in collecting data from Twitter or Facebook). The hard part of conflict early warning and early response is creating the civil society infrastructure of a trust network—people who will send credible information, who know how to respond quickly to a potential outbreak of violence. The easier part is the social media component—creating a categorization scheme for text messages of the major events to be tracked, using cell phones to send messages and to call people who can be instrumental at nipping violence in the bud. The civil society infrastructure is the foundation. The social media is a helpful way to facilitate systematic collection and dissemination of information. The internet helps to keep track of what is going on where, but it is not necessarily needed by those in the trust network.
Of course, there are places where there is no cell phone service. In such locations, organizations are sending trained staff members using High Frequency radios into conflict hot spots. For instance, the Conflict Early Warning project (CEWARN) of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development in East Africa uses radios with its field monitors working in places where there is no cell phone service but where there is deadly violence, often related to cattle raids. Here again, it is possible to set up an early warning system without the internet.
We need not get distracted by a lack of internet penetration. We must keep learning from innovators in the global south who devise ways to communicate when danger is at their doorstep.
Joseph G. Bock is Director of Global Health Training and Teaching Professor in the Eck Institute for Global Health and University-wide Liaison with Catholic Relief Services at the University of Notre Dame. He has more than a decade of experience in humanitarian relief and development.
Above images courtesy of Accord, Susan A. Lyke, and Joseph Bock, respectively.